NEW YORK -- Nick Malgieri makes everything look as easy as pie -- well, make that as easy as Danish walnut braid, a treat he was whipping up recently in a spacious, light-filled kitchen at the Peter Kump Cooking School, where he is director of the baking program.
The recipe, for a sweet pastry that could be used for breakfast, dessert, or at tea-time, wraps Danish pastry around a filling of milk, walnuts and bread crumbs. He assures a novice baker that it's no trouble at all.
Preparing the filling "is basically no harder than boiling water," he says..
The recipe is one of 400 in Mr. Malgieri's new book, "How to Bake" (HarperCollins, $35). He'll be in Baltimore Friday promoting the book in TV and radio appearances, and he will be demonstrating recipes at the Baltimore International Culinary College downtown.
He speaks slowly and precisely, explaining at each step why something works -- a born teacher whose "no fear" approach makes a five-page recipe seem like a few common-sense steps. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, he's written two other cookbooks and contributed to such publications as Chocolatier and the New York Times.
While he works, processing bread crumbs to fine powder, processing walnut pieces to a sort of meal, heating milk, sugar and butter in a saucepan, simmering it briefly, then adding the bread crumbs and the ground walnuts, he calmly delivers tips, jokes, explanations and nuggets of history.
"Danish" pastry is probably really Viennese in origin, he says. "The idea of using bread crumbs is very Viennese, and making a creamy kind of filling is very Viennese. In Vienna they might use cake or cookie crumbs, which would make it a little sweeter -- which they wouldn't be afraid of."
While he talks, he's stirring the walnut mixture vigorously on the stove. He explains that the starch in the bread crumbs will thicken it. "I just want to let it get a little thicker, because it will get thicker as it cools."
When the mixture's to his liking, he scrapes it into a stainless steel bowl. "We'll just let it cool in the freezer for a while."
He pulls out of the refrigerator the dough he has prepared earlier, and measures off a third. (He prepares the dough in a food processor -- "a survey by Chocolatier magazine found that more people have food processors than mixers" -- lets it rest a few minutes, then folds in a layer of butter. The dough is folded several times to make many layers. The result is a light, buttery pastry that is enhanced, not obscured, Mr. Malgieri says, by the filling.)
"Now we're going to roll the dough into a 12-inch square." He starts by making gentle cross-hatch depressions in the surface of the dough with the rolling pin. "One thing about Danish dough, you don't roll it extremely thin. If you get it too thin, you're going to lose the layers."
He rolls it out neatly. "That looks almost right." But he goes off to find a ruler to make sure. Since he's putting it into a pan that has shallow sides, he lines the pan with a piece of parchment paper. "That way, I can lift it out by the paper and slide it off. If your cookie sheet doesn't have sides, you can slide it right off the sheet."
It's time to create the braid. He folds the dough into thirds, opens it up and marks every half-inch down the sides. Using a pizza wheel, he slices along the lines.
The filling is still warm, so he stops to make the egg wash. "Egg wash is one of my pet peeves . . people make egg wash by stirring the egg a couple of times with the brush, and then they put these big glops of egg on what they're supposed to be painting. That's why I like to use the salt, because it makes it nice and liquid."
He spreads the filling, cooled by now, down the center of the dough, then folds alternate strips across it. "When you get to the end you can fudge it a little," he says, tucking an extra piece underneath. The strips are folded neatly, but not so precisely anyone can't do it. His visitor tries it, and is surprised by the springy lightness of the dough.
"The dough has a certain amount of elasticity to it," Mr. Malgieri says. "It's important for it to have some. It gets some of that elasticity from that rolling and folding process, making the layers of dough and butter, which is real important in the Danish. People are surprised when they taste real Danish, because they expect it to be like the commercial kind, which is not layers at all.
"There are various schools of thought on baking Danish," he says. "The Scandinavians like to throw it right in the oven. I like to let it puff just a little bit. Most things you make that have yeast in them, you usually wait until they increase 100 percent over their original size. With Danish, you only wait until it's increased about 50 percent over its original size."
He brushes the braid with the egg wash and sprinkles walnut pieces on the top.
When the braid has risen slightly, he pops it into the oven and makes the icing, a simple confectioners' sugar type flavored with cinnamon. When the braid is done -- about 20 minutes -- he drizzles the icing over the top, lifts it out of the pan on the paper and slides it onto a cutting board. It's a beautiful dish, the golden color of the pastry and the caramel color of the cinnamon icing with the intricate-looking braid. And under Mr. Malgieri's patient tutelage, it's seemed snap to make.
When he talks later about what he hopes to instill in students when he's teaching, he notes that while it's important to learn technique, there's no substitute for taste -- "and taste is the thing that's hardest to teach. You can impart taste to a dish more easily than to a person."
M. Malgieri's demonstration at BICC takes place from 9 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. at the college's Cooking Demonstration Theater, 206 Water St. Tickets are $10 and are available at the bookstore, 204 Water St. Call (410) 752-4983.
Mix it up
To receive a copy of the recipes for Danish Pastry Dough and Danish Pastry Braid by fax, dial Sunfax at (410) 332-6123. Punch in the information number 5050 when the automated attendant requests your selection. You must have a fax machine and a Touch-Tone phone.